Transparency at Federal Science Agencies

WaPo gets marks for covering UCS “report card,” but misses important details

Last Friday, The Union of Concerned Scientists released a “report card” grading fifteen federal agencies’ records on disclosing scientific information to the public and the press.

Given many journalists’ and scientists’ (government or otherwise) opinion that the Bush administration has restricted data to an unprecedented and unwarranted degree, the UCS report couldn’t have come at better time. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both decried the secretive and autocratic policies of the current White House and have promised many times on the campaign trail to undo gag orders on government scientists. Thanks, then, go to The Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman, who appears to be the only reporter to have covered the UCS report card.

But that said, Kaufman’s piece misses a few important details. The report card graded two things: the agencies’ written policies (on a scale of A to F) and their actual records in practice (on a scale of Outstanding to Unsatisfactory). Now, as Kaufman clearly communicates in his article, the important takeaway message is that, overall, these agencies’ (from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Institutes of Health) willingness to share scientific information with the public and the press leaves much to be desired. But his article only reports the agencies’ written policy grades while ignoring their work in practice, which may have given readers a false impression of a few that he mentioned.

In particular, Kaufman wrote, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … [does] a commendable job of making scientific research and expertise available, the report said.” Well, that is not true. The CDC received a solid A for its written policy, but a “Needs Improvement” grade for its work in practice. Likewise, Kaufman reports that both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) received an “Incomplete” for their written policies, which the UCS was unable to locate (or which don’t exist). However, it would have been worth noting that the FDA received a “Needs Improvement” mark for its work in practice, while the NSF got an “Outstanding.”

Indeed, as the UCS noted in the first paragraph of its press release, “The report found significant inconsistencies and confusion among agency media policies and their implementation. Some agency policies encourage free speech, but the agencies stifle communication. Other policies are weak, but in practice the agencies allow scientists to speak freely.”

Kaufman, who has been a journalist for thirty years and with the Post for last ten of them, is truly one of the best reporters covering federal regulatory agencies. I interviewed him earlier this month for a story about the 50th anniversary of NASA, which both he and the UCS cited as one of the agencies that has done the most to correct well-publicized restrictions on its scientists. So this column should not cast any aspersion whatsoever on his journalistic capability. This looks to be a prime example of what New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin has referred to as “the twin tyrannies of time and space.” Kaufman’s article is only 500 words long and he turned it around the same day that the UCS released its report. Yet this is obviously a story that deserves more investigation and more column inches.

Lamentably, it’s “be first or be last” in the modern media world, and even veteran journalists like Kaufman are not immune to such pressure. But given the UCS report card’s utter relevance to the current presidential campaign, one hopes that he will do a follow-up (or many; and that other reporters will, too) that examines the hard work that needs to be done to restore our government’s scientific integrity.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.